Ruskin and Lichen

Kate Flint

Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay i Fig. 1.2 John Ruskin, Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay (c.1871). Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on wove paper, 21.9 × 15.4 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Donna Haraway has boldly proclaimed ‘We are all lichens now’: on the face of it, a somewhat surprising statement.[1] But it makes a lot of sense. Haraway, a prominent scholar in the areas of science, technology, and gender, has long been interested in the permeability of boundaries between humans and animals and, in this instance, between humans and one of the most tenacious forms of vegetative life, itself both primitive and highly complex.[2] In claiming allegiance to lichen, Haraway is talking about the importance of the symbiosis, co-dependence, and inter-connectedness that allows this organism to exist, and that makes it such a potent example for our environmentally threatened times.

watercolour of lichen by Ruskin.
Fig. 1.1 John Ruskin, Study of Foreground Material. Finished Sketch in Water-Colour, from Nature (1871). Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on wove paper, 19 × 21.4 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

John Ruskin repeatedly wrote about lichen and about its fellow-traveller, moss. He drew them both, often together, with his customary, extraordinarily precise attention to detail, as in his watercolour study of ‘foreground material’ held in his teaching collection in the Ashmolean Museum, which is more a reference compilation of tiny vegetation that could conceivably be found on limestone rocks than a finished composition (Fig. 1.1). He did not immediately see lichen in anything like such metaphoric, or symbolic terms, as does Haraway. Nonetheless, being Ruskin, his associative intellect, and his confidence in the world’s interconnected structures and organic materials ensured that his engagement with lichen went far beyond the level of the purely descriptive. His treatment of lichen depended on a number of things: his sustained commitment to the close observation of natural phenomena; the accumulation of literary tradition that deepened the contexts for his mentions of lichen, and that was shared by a number of his readers; and his habit of drawing connections between natural and social phenomena. Although his own understanding of lichen does not seem to have been impacted by developments in scientific inquiry, Ruskin’s career spanned a period that saw significant advances in the understanding of lichens. Yet for all his emphasis on lichen’s aesthetics, whether directly observed in nature or mediated through painting, his writing shows no acknowledgment that other contemporaries were equally intrigued by its properties from a biological angle.[3]

Lichens are not—as was believed for a good part of the nineteenth century—parasite plants. Indeed, they are not plants at all, nor, exactly, fungi: rather, they are composite organisms that emerge from algae, or cyanobacteria, that contain chlorophyll. These are called the photobiont, algae that live among the filaments of two fungi—the mycobiont—in a mutually beneficial relation. The algae component of lichen photosynthesises sunlight and produces carbohydrates, whilst the fungus provides shelter for the algae, and also uses some of the carbohydrates that it produces.[4] And recent studies of lichen show that the organism is probably still more complex, and goes beyond this dual support system: another fungus, a basidiomycete yeast, has been found in fifty-two genera of lichen across six continents.[5] The type of lichen, and its coloration, is also dependent on other properties: the microclimate in which it’s found; the surface that it’s growing on, rock or metal or tree trunk or glass or old shoe leather; and its mineral composition. Lichen are, to quote Beat poet Lew Welch,

tiny acid-factories dissolving
salt from living rocks and
eating them.[6]

It is this property of co-dependence—‘this / symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding / on rock, on sun, a little moisture, air’, to borrow from Welch again—that allowed Haraway to make her claims about us all now being lichens, and that emphasises lichens’ and our shared part in ‘collaborative survival’.[7] We should note, too that lichens are also extraordinarily adaptive to all kinds of environments. They are pioneer species, among the first to emerge after a disaster or to colonise newly formed volcanic rock. And by the mid-nineteenth century, a further important property of lichen was starting to be postulated: its role as an indicator of levels of pollution.[8]

Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay
Fig. 1.2 John Ruskin, Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay (c.1871). Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on wove paper, 21.9 × 15.4 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

As many of Ruskin’s descriptions of lichens demonstrate, to write of this organism is to write about surfaces. Lichen exists between stone, bark, and brick—and air. His Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay might ostensibly be to show how building materials crack apart when overheated, but the surface texture of tiny flakes and bubbles of green lichen is far more compelling to the eye (Fig. 1.2). Typically grey, or grey-green, or yellow, or rust-coloured, its shades change subtly with every shift in sunlight or cloud cover, with time of day, with distance. These lichenous surfaces, seen close up, are delicately variegated. Yet, as I show in this chapter, a surface reading of lichen’s frequent appearances in Ruskin’s writing—and, indeed, in some of his watercolours—fails to take account of its deeper and often invisible connections to environmental change over time. To explore Ruskin’s interest in lichen is to open up some far-reaching questions. It allows one to see how Victorian interest in the commonplace natural world is, in fact, connected to contemporary ecological issues. When he calls attention to lichen in a landscape, or when we look at carefully observed moss and lichen on boulders, bricks, and tree trunks in paintings by artists whom he greatly admired for their fidelity to natural forms, we are looking at our future. For lichen is extraordinarily long-lived, a survivor. At the same time, it is extremely sensitive to pollution and environmental change: if smoky air or a change in temperature over time doesn’t kill it off, it absorbs and registers miniscule alien particles in the air. Ruskin—and indeed other naturalists, other poets—encourage us to notice lichen and to admire its delicate beauty. When we combine this with our knowledge of lichen’s properties, I show how thinking about lichen and moss helps to focus attention on the long process of slow environmental violence.[9]


Literary lichen

The appearance of lichen in Romantic and Victorian writing and art generally signals no direct engagement with scientific inquiry. Moreover, many of these mentions, as is the case with Ruskin, habitually lump it together with moss. Mosses, unlike lichen, are unarguably plants, though often misidentified: reindeer ‘moss’, for example, is a lichen; Spanish ‘moss’, that instant signifier of tropical decadence and languor, is a flowering plant; sea ‘moss’ is an alga, or seaweed. But they are very rudimentary plants: they have no roots, flowers, fruits or seeds; they cannot conduct water internally. Basically, they’re stem and leaf, and, in their simplicity, ideally suited, like lichen, to occupying surfaces that other growing things can get no purchase on. As the noted moss expert Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, they also live in a boundary layer. ‘Mosses inhabit surfaces: the surfaces of rocks, the bark of trees, the surface of a log, that small space where earth and atmosphere first make contact’.[10] What ecocritic Mark Frost has written of moss (and rust) is equally true of lichen, despite the biological gap between them: one must not mistake ubiquity for insignificance; one should take on board Ruskin’s insistence ‘that the lessons to be learnt from these overlooked phenomena lie precisely in their unrecognized power’; and that, despite their proliferation in the everyday, ‘marked by a biodynamic capacity for interaction and transformation, iron and moss’—and lichen!—‘reveal a world that for many of his contemporaries was deeply unfamiliar and far from everyday’.[11]

Literary lichen fulfils a number of functions. In keeping with lichen’s own adaptability, these functions are sometimes contradictory: lichen is both described as a beautiful and detailed decorative form, and as a creeping blight. Lichen signals age, venerability, continuance, tenaciousness. ‘Mosses and wandering lichens’, as Ruskin puts it in the early essay ‘The Poetry of Architecture’ (1837), ‘though beautiful, constitute a kind of beauty from which the ideas of age and decay are inseparable’.[12] In this respect, George Crabbe’s lines in Letter II of The Borough, his 1810 long poem of rural life, were irresistible to lichenologists:

The living stains, which Nature’s hand alone,
Profuse of life, pours forth upon the stone;
For ever growing; where the common eye
Can but the bare and rocky bed descry, –
There Science loves to trace her tribes minute,
The juiceless foliage and the tasteless fruit;
There she perceives them round the surface creep,
And while they meet their due distinctions keep,
Mix’d but not blended: each its name retains,
And these are Nature’s ever-during stains.[13]

These words are cited by that indispensable guide, William Lauder Lindsay’s Popular History of British Lichens (1856), and many other works of natural history. Linked to endurance and the picturesque, lichen and moss introduce questions about history and temporal scale. These questions are tacitly posed in Henry Alexander Bowler’s 1855 painting The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones live?’, intended as a comment on Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam (Fig. 1.3). Bowler included in his picture elements that weigh the answer towards the affirmative, towards a belief in the resurrection. These include the Biblical verses on the foreground tombstones, (‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’ and ‘Resurgam’); the butterfly that sits on the skull and the butterflies that flutter over other stones, conventional symbols of the soul; the tree that’s growing from the splitting chestnut fruit, indicating renewal. These coexist with other visual suggestions that the time of mourning may not last for ever. Moreover, the lichen on this sixty-year-old tombstone, on the chestnut tree, and even on the uncovered skull itself speak to timescales of earthly continuance that differ from human ones.

oil painting of a woman standing in a garden called 'The Doubt' by Henry Alexander Bowler
Fig. 1.3 Henry Alexander Bowler, The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’ (1855). Oil on canvas, 61 × 50.8 cm. Tate, London. Photo: © Tate.

Frequently, at least within British culture, lichen and moss are associated with damp weather and the decay it brings, as well as with tenaciousness—and with good reason.  In 1859, the Art Journal described the recent murals in Westminster’s Poet’s Gallery, including Edward Armitage’s Personification of the Thames (1852), as already ‘stained and discoloured with the most unwholesome hues, and entire fields of microscopic fungi’.[14] Yet there is often something idyllic about lichen and moss. William Morris, in ‘Golden Wings’, evokes the hortus inclusus of a medieval castle when he writes ‘On the bricks the green moss grew / Yellow lichen on the stone’.[15] Both moss and lichen signified unexpected, subtle beauty. This visual value was endorsed by comparison to the fine arts. To quote John Ellor Taylor’s Mountain and Moor, the poet Jane Taylor (no relation) ‘but expresses the unuttered opinion of every lover of the mountains who has observed how these humble and lowly members of the vegetable kingdom throw a mantle of beauty around them:

‘Art’s finest pencil could but rudely mock
The rich grey lichens broider’d on a rock’.[16]

If lichen was regarded as ‘humble and lowly’, then, by extension, to study lichen was to underscore the democratic implications of some of the forms that nature study could take. John Ellor Taylor was himself a self-taught naturalist from Manchester, rising up from store boy in a locomotive works to become foreman in a cotton factory. Lindsay’s History, too, puts considerable emphasis in its opening on the overlooked, underestimated qualities of lichen, and further connects lichen to class hierarchies through contrasting the attention that it has received to that enjoyed by other natural forms:

The delicate waving frond of the fern is anxiously tended by jewelled fingers in the drawing-rooms of the wealthy and noble; the rhodospermous seaweed finds a place beside the choicest productions of art in the gilt and broidered album; the tiny moss has been the theme of many a gifted poet; and even the despised mushroom has called forth classic works in its praise. But the Lichens, which stain every rock and clothe every tree, which form

‘Nature’s livery o’er the globe
Where’er her wonders range,’
have been almost universally neglected, nay despised.[17]

landscape 'Val d’Aosta'
Fig. 1.4 John Brett, Val d’Aosta (1858). Oil on canvas, 87.6 cm × 68 cm. Private collection. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Lichens, found everywhere, epitomise the democratic appeal of botanising in the mid-Victorian period; comparing them to aesthetic production was a means of elevating their status. Embroidery, jewellery, painting, fabric arts: many Victorians invoked these mediums in order to praise lichens for the variety and subtlety of their colouring, and the delicacy of their structures. Manchester naturalist Leo Hartley Grindon, in his 1882 Country Rambles, remarks how ‘for the artist of pre-Raphael vision, there is bijouterie’ in ‘grey and golden lichen’, which he calls ‘gems of nature’.[18] Pre-Raphaelite artists and those associated with their style of painting had, of course, long realised this. Consider the work of John Brett, deeply influenced by Ruskin’s command to ‘go to nature … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing’.[19] Brett painted stand-alone lichen-covered stones; he incorporated Alpine lichens into the foreground of Val d’Aosta (1858) after, he said, he’d gone to study gneiss in the Alps at Ruskin’s suggestion; he depicted lichenous tree trunks and branches in The Hedger (1859–60), and produced a series of rocky coastal landscapes, including Carthillon Cliffs (1878) and Golden Prospects (1881) that are almost formulaic in their confidence in lichen’s visual appeal (Figs. 1.4 and 1.5).[20] Ruskin’s influence is strongly visible in transatlantic depictions of lichen, too, as is manifested in John Henry Hill’s Lake George (1875), a strikingly luminous watercolour that featured in The American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 2019.

oil painting of Carthillon Cliffs
Fig. 1.5 John Brett, Carthillon Cliffs (1878). Oil on canvas, 45.7 × 91.4 cm. Royal Holloway, University of London. Photo: Royal Holloway, University of London.

Ruskin’s lichens

Ruskin frequently praised the beauties of lichen and moss. Right from his earliest publications, he encouraged his readers to see nature in aesthetic ways, suggesting that they look at a green lane ‘with a sketcher’s eyes: where the old and gnarled wood is covered with the brightness,—the jewel brightness of the emerald moss, or the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a garment of beauty for the old withered branch’.[21] In The Elements of Drawing (1857), he invites the budding artist to start small, and whatever geological specimen is likely to be at hand will suffice admirably: ‘Be resolved, in the first place, to draw a piece of rounded rock, with its variegated lichens, quite rightly, getting its complete roundings, and all the patterns of lichen in true local colour. Till you can do this, it is of no use your thinking of sketching among hills…’.[22] Thomas Sulman remembered Ruskin bringing in ‘lichen and fungi from Anerley Woods’ when he gave art classes at the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square.[23] Moving from the realm of instruction to his own practice as a meticulous observer and as a writer, Ruskin sets out with extraordinary precision the appearance of the mineral-rich rocks of the Lake District in the light of the setting sun, where ‘a very minute black lichen,—so minute as to look almost like spots of dark paint,—a little opposed and warmed by the golden Lichen geographicus, still farther subdues the paler hues of the highest granite rocks’.[24] Stand back even further—say a distance of four or five miles—‘and seen under warm light through soft air, the orange becomes russet, more or less inclining to pure red, according to the power of the rays: but the black of the lichen becomes pure dark blue’, resulting in ‘that peculiar reddish purple’ that one sees, say, in the higher Alps, lichen playing its role in creating the aesthetic whole, combining with iron in the rocks and the quality of light.[25] Mosses are no less delicately treated. Ruskin observes them on the limestone rocks of the Jura, where they gather

in little brown bosses, like small cushions of velvet made of mixed threads of dark ruby silk and gold, rounded over more subdued films of white and grey, with lightly crisped and curled edges like hoar frost on fallen leaves, and minute clusters of upright orange stalks with pointed caps, and fibres of deep green, and gold, and faint purple passing into black, all woven together, and following with unimaginable fineness of gentle growth the undulation of the stone they cherish, until it is charged with colour so that it can receive no more; and instead of looking rugged, or cold, or stern, as anything that a rock is held to be at heart, it seems to be clothed with a soft, dark leopard skin, embroidered with arabesque of purple and silver.[26]

Ruskin praises both mosses and lichens for their endurance. As he describes them, his piling-on of adjectives and his reluctance to bring descriptive sentences to an end speak of his intense delight, too, in their variety and delicacy even as they represent an enviably stoic persistence. They are

in one sense the humblest, in another they are the most honoured of the earth-children. Unfading, as motionless, the worm frets them not, and the autumn wastes not. Strong in lowliness, they neither blanch in heat nor pine in frost. To them, slow-fingered, constant-hearted, is entrusted the weaving of the dark, eternal tapestries of the hills; to them, slow-pencilled, iris-dyed, the tender framing of their endless imagery.[27]

portrait in oil of John Ruskin
Fig. 1.6 John Everett Millais, John Ruskin (1853–4). Oil on canvas, 71.3 × 60.8 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Ruskin, here, like other lichen commentators, uses the language of artistic creativity. So, it’s unsurprising that he praised painters themselves for their exactitude when it came to painting lichen: it became for him a kind of litmus test of their attention to natural detail (and I’ll note in passing that the reactive dye in litmus paper is derived from lichen). This was very notable when he wrote to his father, on 11 October 1853, about the portrait that John Everett Millais was painting of him at Glenfinlas, in the Trossachs (Fig. 1.6).[28] ‘Millais’s picture is beginning to surpass even my expectations— the lichens are coming out upon the purple rocks like silver chasing on a purple robe’.[29] Four days later he commended his own steadfastness in keeping Millais ‘up to the Pre-Raphaelite degree of finish’ when he was painting his portrait, ‘which I have done with a vengeance, as he has taken three months to do half a background two feet over, and perhaps won’t finish it now. But I have got maps of all the lichens on the rocks…’.[30] It’s not quite clear here whether he’s referring to Millais’s meticulous painted record, or (perhaps less likely) to the drawings that he himself executed at the time, not least his magnificent drawing of gneiss rock, executed a little upstream, probably in July the same year (Fig. 1.7).[31] Ruskin’s own depictions of rock surfaces, however, once again show how his eye was drawn to lichen and moss.

Study of Gneiss Rock
Fig. 1.7 John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (1853–4). Lampblack, bodycolour, and pen and ink over graphite on wove paper, with some scratching out, 47.8 × 32.7 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
The Moorland (Dewar-stone, Dartmoor)
Fig. 1.8 John William Inchbold, The Moorland (Dewar-stone, Dartmoor) (1854). Oil on canvas, 35.6 cm × 53.3 cm. Tate, London. Photo: © Tate.

In a rare criticism of a J. M. W. Turner drawing, his Dumblane Abbey of 1816, Ruskin condemned the artist for having ‘absolutely stripped the [projecting] rock of its beautiful lichens to bare slate’, despite the fact that when he himself last saw it, ‘it was covered with lichen having as many colours as a painted window’.[32] But celebrating the depiction of lichen comes far more readily to Ruskin than lamenting its absence. In his Academy Notes for 1855, he singled out J. W. Inchbold’s The Moorland (Dewar-stone, Dartmoor) as ‘the only thoroughly good landscape in the rooms of the Academy. It is more exquisite in its finish of lichenous rock painting than any work I have ever seen’ (Fig. 1.8).[33] He admired William Hunt’s ability to ‘paint a bird’s nest built of feathers, lichen and moss’ in exact, delicate detail, although he wished that Hunt would paint ‘the mosses and bright lichens of the rocks themselves’ rather than merely using mossy and lichen-covered banks and stones as backgrounds to fruit and flowers.[34] All the same, he kept one of Hunt’s paintings—of grapes and peaches—in his bedroom at Brantwood until he died. The painting had been bought by Ruskin’s father at the Old Water-Colour Society exhibition in 1858. Carl Haag’s In the Sabine Hills was shown on the same occasion, and Ruskin commended it for being ‘the first which has entirely expressed the character of the black stains of mountain life which hardly change their shapes in a thousand years’.[35] On the other hand, Canaletto—whose mechanical exactitude Ruskin hated—is condemned for failing to render the endlessly shifting, watery tones of Venetian canals where ‘the wild sea-weeds and crimson lichens drifted and crawled with their thousand colours and fine branches’.[36] By a similar token, Clarkson Stanfield’s maritime scenes are just far too pristine: ‘even his fishermen have always clean jackets and unsoiled caps, and his very rocks are lichenless’.[37]

Yet lichen also could be made to speak to the ills of the modernity. In the 1840s, Ruskin, despite his celebration of its beauty when found on a rock surface, spoke metaphorically of ‘the lichenous stain of over-civilisation’.[38] In Letter 48 of Fors Clavigera (December 1874) thirty-odd years later, he’s somewhat more opaque, expressing his pleasure that the accounts of St George’s Fund are healthy; investors must surely be pleased—and here he shifts to a register that’s decidedly uneasy about financial accumulation—‘that, though they are getting no interest themselves, that lichenous growth of vegetable gold, or mould, is duly developing itself on their capital’.[39] But there’s no equivocation in Fiction Fair or Foul (1880), where he compares the realism with which the ‘mental ruin and distress’ of those living in crowded, fetid urban conditions is described in novels to the ‘botany of leaf lichens’.[40] For once, Ruskin seems to find something morbidly unhealthy in looking too closely at detail, turning close scrutiny of the everyday and the overlooked into something unsettling. This hyper-awareness of detail is highly applicable, of course, to the descriptions in Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (1835) that he’s castigating (and Balzac himself had a sharp eye for the presence of lichens on walls and trees and stones). Such hyper-awareness is found in contemporary art as well, for example, in Swedish artist Oscar Furbacken’s disconcerting and hugely enlarged photographs of urban lichen.[41]


Lichen and environmental change

Invoking Furbacken is deliberately an anachronistic leap. As I explained in my introduction, Victorian interest in commonplace natural phenomena may very readily be connected to environmental concerns that are at the forefront of our consciousness today: concerns with pollution, biodiversity, the preservation of ecosystems, sustainability. Victorian modes of observation are also our own: Frost usefully makes the point that ‘in a manoeuvre typical of ecological practice, Ruskin foregrounds the dependency of environmental systems on apparently tiny phenomena’.[42] But if paying attention to the ordinary and the overlooked is a strong takeaway message from Victorian natural history in general, we should note what becomes especially telling in the case of closely-observed lichen. Its particular significance comes from a combination of its longevity, and from its capacity to register pollution. Lichen lack a vascular system—that is, the assemblage of conductive tissues and associated supportive fibres possessed by plants—and absorb water and nutrients passively from their immediate environment. This means that they are especially sensitive to changing climatic conditions, and are affected by temperature and water availability, not least because a good deal of their moisture comes from mist and dew, which contain high levels of pollutants. Air quality affects both the growth and structure of lichen, and so lichen works as an indicator of changing concentrations of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, and ozone in the surrounding atmosphere.

This is no new discovery: indeed, lichen’s significance as a bio-indicator, a barometer of polluted air was postulated as early as the mid-nineteenth century. The Manchester botanist Leo Grindon, whose Country Rambles I quoted earlier, noted in 1859 that the quantity of lichens ‘has been much lessened of late years, through the cutting down of old woods, and the influx of factory smoke, which appears to be singularly prejudicial to these lovers of pure atmosphere’.[43] By 1866, the Finnish botanist William Nylander was writing of how lichens could be used as a ‘health meter’ for air quality.[44] In 1879, the parson and amateur naturalist William Johnson remarked that he’d recently been ‘very much struck with the disastrous effects of a deleterious atmosphere on the growth of lichens’ near Newcastle. He had gone in search of lichens that Nathaniel Winch had recorded in his 1831 Flora of Northumberland and Durham growing in a particular wood: he was looking especially for Evernia prunastri, or oak moss. It was not to be found.

The lichens which flourished here in the fine condition spoken of by Winch have perished, and this evidently from the pollution of the atmosphere by the smoke and fumes from the Tyneside, and the collieries of the surrounding district. Though these are a considerable distance from Gibside, yet the deleterious elements travel on the wind, for the trees have that dusky coating on their trunks and branches which is peculiar to trees bordering a town, and which is fatal to lichen-growth.[45]

In The Great World’s Farm (1894), a book aimed at a general audience which drove home a lesson of ecological interdependence, Selina Gaye writes that since lichens may look so insignificant it’s hard to credit them with sensitivity but points out that what she calls these ‘very passive-looking vegetables’ are in fact excellent indicators of change, ones which remind us that the growth of towns and cities affects far more than their immediate neighbourhoods. She repeats Johnson’s findings, and adds that ‘Lichens have also disappeared from Kew Gardens, and are rare in Epping Forest’.[46]

I want to build on lichen’s well-documented role as an indicator of environmental damage to connect the fascination that Ruskin had with this organism and today’s much more urgent and widespread concern with pollution. This was a threat to which Ruskin himself was, of course, increasingly presciently alert—whether we consider his description of the river in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumberland as ‘one waste of filth, town-drainage, broken saucepans, tannin, and mill-refuse,’ or ‘the continually dark sky, like a plague,’ or his observation of shrinking glaciers in the Alps—something that, today, we register as an indicator of climate change.[47] Looking at the presence of lichen in Ruskin’s writing and graphic works is also highly significant in this context, but we need to think about it in a more complex way than if we were simply considering it as providing some kind of meticulously observed, accurate record. We must consider its relationship to scale and time, and also to enter into the imaginative provocation that lichen and moss set before us.

As Deborah Coen explains in Climate in Motion (2018), the

history of climate science needs to be seen … as part of a history of scaling: the process of mediating between different systems of measurement, formal and informal, designed to apply to different slices of the phenomenal world … Scaling makes it possible to weigh the consequences of human actions at multiple removes and to coordinate actions at multiple levels of governance. It depends on causal factors that are likewise of varying dimensions, from an individual’s imagination to translocal infrastructures, institutions, and ideologies.[48]

As well as the important implications here for the connections between the local and the global at the level of climate change—connections to which lichens are so adept at bearing witness—we may also usefully consider scales of attention, between ostensible subject matter and that which is often considered mere background.

oil painting of a couple embracing by John Everett Millais
Fig. 1.9 John Everett Millais, A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1851–2). Oil on canvas, 92.71 cm × 64.13 cm. Christie Manson and Woods Ltd., London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 1852, the literary and cultural critic David Masson, nostalgic for Joshua Reynolds’s idealism, castigated Pre-Raphaelite painting from nature. He maintained that William Wordsworth’s advice to be true to nature had, for the most part, been interpreted as a command ‘to study vegetation … peering with exaggerated interest’ at jonquils and weeds and ferns and mosses. ‘If they were to paint a brick wall as part of the background of a picture, their notion was that they should not paint such a wall as they could put together mentally out of their past recollection of all the brick walls they had seen, but that they should take some actual brick-wall and paint it exactly as it was, with all its scams, lichens, and weather-stains’.[49] He could very well have had in mind a picture by Millais in which moss and lichen are carefully delineated on a venerable brick wall, their association with age being used to reinforce the historicity of the subject matter. A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger By Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1851–2) was exhibited at the 1852 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which Masson referenced in his article (Fig. 1.9). This painting originated as a study of a ‘secret-looking garden wall’ at the bottom of the garden of Worcester Park Farm, near Cheam, which then formed the backdrop to this dramatic personal and religious tussle.[50] A young girl pleads with her lover to wear a white armband as a sign of his Catholicism, but the devout Protestant refuses such a falsehood. We have to presume that he is fated to be one of the twenty-three thousand or so Huguenots to be massacred on 24 August 1572. But I don’t want to focus on the pathos of the young couple and their devastatingly sad expressions, rather on the backdrop to this moving scene. Masson’s comments indicate that Millais’s meticulous observation did not pass without notice, and, as the Athenaeum’s critic remarked, ‘minute delineation cannot be carried further than this wall’.[51] Much more recently, Susan Casteras writes that the painting ‘almost qualified as a portrait of the wall itself’.[52] Masson anticipates, too, the careful rendition of the apparently insignificant in the vegetative sphere that we observe in the lichen that climbs up the tree base in The Proscribed Royalist, 1651 (1852–3), in turn modelled on an actual oak tree in Hayes, Kent (Fig. 1.10).


John Everett Millais, The Proscribed Royalist
Fig. 1.10 John Everett Millais, The Proscribed Royalist, 1651 (1852–3). Oil on canvas, 102.8 cm × 73.6 cm. Private collection. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not asking that we regard Millais’s early works as if they provided photographic evidence of how things were, despite the Ruskin-influenced care with which their natural features were painted. Rather, I want to argue that they prompt a form of speculation, a different way of looking at the art of the past. For in the moss and lichen of mid-Victorian paintings—growing on the rock behind Ruskin’s stern form and beneath his feet, say—we see changing life forms that will endure well beyond the lifespans of the humans represented, or the models who posed for them, or those who painted them or who saw them in exhibitions. They do not have the obvious symbolic transience of a summer rose or of springtime blossom. Quite the reverse: as we have seen, lichens, in particular, invariably stand for endurance. But the actual lichens of the 1850s may, in fact, come in time to be altered, even destroyed, by changes in the surrounding air that in turn have impacted on later human lives. So, representations of lichen may usefully be read in relation to change that happens over a longer period than an individual lifetime: microscopic change, perhaps, but significant change, all the same, that takes place in what we think of—if we think about it at all—as the stable and enduring features of a scene.

What I’m suggesting, therefore, is that we apply to visual works something of the critical rethinking that has been taking place in literary studies. With hindsight, we may see pastoral as a potentially critical mode, rather than, or rather than simply, a nostalgic mode. Instead of looking back to the Victorian period through the painters that Ruskin praises, we might usefully ask what happens if we acknowledge that they point forwards; that every lichen-covered tree trunk, every moss-encrusted boulder and bank, will be recording ‘the season and climatic fluctuations of a particular place over a long stretch of time’. These are Elizabeth Miller’s words about how we might approach the presence of trees in Victorian fiction. Miller notes that many achieve ‘a height and a distance from the earth that far exceeds the scale of the human’, and that an ‘arboreal scale can … achieve a certain distance beyond the individuated human life’ that is at the centre of most forms of literary realism.[53] In the case of lichen and moss, the question of scale is complicated yet further, since we are considering both their growth, continuance, and endurance over long periods of time, and the minute complexity of very small organisms. And, as John Holmes has remarked, one ‘of the most profound results of the Pre-Raphaelites’ ecological investigations is their realization that environments are the collective creation of all the organisms that inhabit them’.[54] This returns us, too, to the collective nature of lichen itself.

Ruskin, in turning his attention to moss and lichen, uses—metaphorically speaking—both microscope and telescope. He sees them both in delicate detail and then responding to a setting sun at four or five miles’ distance: this oscillation between minutiae and generalisation is a habit of his seeing and of his thought. It’s a mode of vision, at once of the moment and prophetic, that encourages us, too, to consider how we might learn from lichen, which is at once an embodiment and a symbol of the interdependence of ecological systems. Focusing our attention on the often-overlooked beauties and properties of lichens—as Ruskin’s practice of close looking encourages us to do—is a means of relating the small and the apparently unspectacular to that long process of slow environmental violence.


[1] Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’, transcript 5 September 2014, accessed 10 November 2020, In turn, Haraway took the phrase from a December 2012 article by biologist Scott F. Gilbert, historian of biology Jan Sapp, and historian and philosopher of science Alfred I. Tauber, entitled: ‘A symbiotic view of life: We have never been individuals’, a point brought home in its last sentence, ‘we are all lichens’. Quarterly Review of Biology 87:4 (2012): p. 341.
[2] See especially Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008).
[3] Indeed, Ruskin’s investigations and characterisations of lichen probably predated many of the major developments in lichenology. The Library of the Guild of St George Museum contains the following relevant volumes: Joanne Hedwig, Cryptogamic Plants (Mosses, Lichens, and Fungi): Descriptio et Adumbratio Microscopico-Analytica Muscorum Frondosorum, four volumes bound in two (Leipzig, 1787–97); William Curtis and W. J. Hooker, Flora Londinensis, or Plates and Descriptions of such Plants as grow wild in the environs of London, with their places of growth and times of flowering, five royal folio volumes (London: printed for and sold by the Author, 1777–1828), which was, apparently, a favourite book of Ruskin’s; Flora Danica, six folio volumes (Copenhagen, 1766–92); and James Edward Smith, Miles Joseph Berkeley, and William Jackson Hooker, The English Flora, six volumes (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1828–36). See also Ruskin, 30.262 (The Guild and Museum of St George: Reports, catalogues and other papers).
[4] My understanding of lichen is hugely indebted to the essays in Thomas H. Nash (ed.), Lichen Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For an earlier, brief history of lichenology that remains extremely useful, see Charles C. Plitt, ‘A Short History of Lichenology’, Bryologist 22:6 (November 1919): pp. 77–85.
[5] See Maddie Stone, ‘We’ve been wrong about lichen for 150 years’, accessed 9 November 2020,
[6] Lew Welch, ‘Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen’, ‘[I Saw Myself]’, in Ring of Bone: Collected Poems of Lew Welch (San Francisco: Collected Lights Books, 2012), p. 145.
[7] Welch, ‘Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen’, p. 145. The phrase ‘collaborative survival’ is Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 19. Recent work on the lichen microbiome and its additional partners has put particular emphasis on its complexity and diversity. Yet the theory of symbiosis took a while to become accepted at all, not least because it was a long time before lichens were thought to be worthy of study. People tended to buy into Linnaeus’s description of them as the rustici pauperrimi—the ‘poor trash’ of vegetation—in his 1753 Species Plantarum, or they thought them only of interest because of their appearance, or their usefulness (for dye, for their supposed medical properties). Yet after Linnaeus, botanists started to classify and differentiate them, started to look carefully at their appearance and modes of reproduction, and then, in 1867, the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener’s ‘On the[?] true nature of lichens’ first put forward the hypothesis that they are, indeed, symbiotic growths. He expanded on this in his 1869 long pamphlet ‘Die Algentypen der Flechtengonidien’, in which, however, it is clear that he saw the benefits of the symbiosis as flowing only in one direction. He describes this through a sustained metaphor that, to my mind, lacks clarity in its political sympathies: he terms lichen-forming fungi ‘parasites, although with the wisdom of statesmen’, and their algal partners ‘helotes’ or ‘slaves’. The term ‘symbiosis’ was actually introduced not by Schwenener, although he constructed the hypothesis, but by Albert Bernhard Frank in his 1877 study of crustose lichens; it was taken up by De Barry in 1879 and applied in the broad sense that we now understand it, as the ‘living together of dissimilar organisms’.
[8] For an overview of lichen’s sensitivity to environmental change, see Jennifer Gabrys, ‘Sensing Lichens: From Ecological Microcosms to Environmental Subjects’, Third Text 32:2–3 (2018): pp. 350–67.
[9] I here draw on Rob Nixon’s formulation in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). But I should add: slow in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, perhaps. See the opening of David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), p. 3: ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all’. As he points out, ‘more than half the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before’ (p. 4).
[10] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering MossA Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003), p. 15.
[11] Mark Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss: John Ruskin and the Ecology of the Mundane’, Green Letters, 14:1 (October 2012): p. 10.
[12] Ruskin, 1.13 (Modern Painters 3, 1843).
[13] George Crabbe, ‘Letter II’, in The Borough: a poem, in twenty-four letters [1810], sixth edition (London: J. Hatchard, 1816), pp. 15–16.
[14] ‘The Art Journal’, Salisbury and Winchester Journal (19 March 1859): p. 3. My thanks to Christopher McGeorge for this reference.
[15] William Morris, ‘Golden Wings’, in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (London: Bell and Daldy, 1858), p. 202. The idyllic setting of the poem is completely shattered by the end, however: the moss and lichen have been used to lull one into a false sense of security by association:The apples now grow green and sour
Upon the mouldering castle-wall,
Before they ripen there they fall:
There are no banners on the tower.The draggled swans most eagerly eat
The green weeds trailing in the moat;
Inside the rotting leaky boat
You see a slain man’s stiffen’d feet.
(Morris, ‘Golden Wings’, p. 214).
This corpse seems to have been a victim of the demands of the abba rhyme scheme.
[16] John Ellor Taylor, Mountain and Moor (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1879), p. 181.
[17] William Lauder Lindsay, A Popular History of British Lichens (London: Lovell Reeve, 1856), p. 2.
[18] Leo Hartley Grindon, Country Rambles, and Manchester Walks and Wild Flowers: Being Rural Wanderings in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, & Yorkshire (Manchester: Palmer & Howe; London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1882), p. 92.
[19] Ruskin, 3.623–4 (Modern Painters 3, 1843).
[20] Confirmed by a lecture given in 1890, ‘Education in Art’. Typescript in the Brett Family Papers, cited by Christiana Payne and Charles Brett, John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 45. Rosa Brett, John Brett’s sister, also recorded lichen on trees and rocks with meticulous accuracy.
[21] Ruskin, 1.284 (‘Essay on the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music and the Advantages to be Derived from their Pursuit’, 1838).
[22] Ruskin, 15.110 (The Elements of Drawing, 1857).
[23] Ruskin, 5.xi (Modern Painters 3, 1856).
[24] Ruskin, 6.140 (Modern Painters 4, 1856).
[25] Ruskin, 6.140.
[26] Ruskin, 6.165–6.
[27] Ruskin, 7.130 (Modern Painters 5, 1860).
[28] See Alastair Grieve, ‘Ruskin and Millais at Glenfinlas’, Burlington Magazine, 138:1117 (1996): pp. 228–34.
[29] Mary Lutyens, Millais and the Ruskins (New York: Vanguard Press, 1968), p. 93.
[30] Ruskin to Dr Furnivall, 16 October 1853, quoted in Ruskin, 12.xxiv.
[31] See The Ashmolean, accessed 9 November 2020,
[32] Ruskin, 22.35–6 (Lectures on Landscape, 1871). In his Notes on the Ruskin Art Collection: Educational Series (1871, 1874, 1878), however, Ruskin offered a more generous interpretation: ‘You will think at first the place itself much more beautiful than Turner’s study; the rocks are lovely with lichen, the banks with flowers; the stream-eddies are foaming and deep. But Turner has attempted none of these minor beauties, and has put into this single scene the spirit of Scotland’. Ruskin, 21.135. This drawing is also known as Dumblaine Abbey and Dunblane Abbey: I use the spelling employed by Ruskin.
[33] Ruskin, 14.244 (Academy Notes, 1855).
[34] Ruskin, 15.410 (The Laws of Fesolé, 1877–8); Ruskin, 12.361 (Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851).
[35] Ruskin, 14.200 (‘Old Society of Painters in Water-Colours’, 1858).
[36] Ruskin, 3.254 (Modern Painters 1, 1843).
[37] Ruskin, 3.228.
[38] Ruskin, 2.238 (prefatory prose to ‘Written Among the Basses Alpes’, 1846).
[39] Ruskin, 28.202 (Fors Clavigera 48, December 1874).
[40] Ruskin, 34.268 (Fiction, Fair or Foul, 1880).
[41] See, for example, his exhibition in the Teatergalleriet Kalmar, 2–23 September 2017, accessed 9 November 2020,
[42] Frost, ‘Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss’, p. 18.
[43] Leo Grindon, The Manchester Flora (London: William White, 1859), p. 513. For the history of smoke pollution in Manchester see Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester (London: Routledge, 2008); for Victorian pollution in general, see Peter Brimblecombe, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times (London: Methuen, 1987); Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 [2006], second edition (Athens OH: Ohio University Press 2017); and, for an ecocritical discussion of pollution in the context of Victorian literature, see Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016).
[44] William Nylander, ‘Les lichens du Jardin du Luxembourg’, Bulletin de la Société Botanique de France, 13 (1866): pp. 364–72. Nylander first claimed that lichen was a monitor of pollution in 1861. For historical studies of lichen’s sensitivity to air pollution, see Ole William Purvis, ‘Lichens and industrial pollution’, in Lesley C. Batty and Kevin B. Hallberg (eds.), Ecology of Industrial Pollution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 41–69; and T. H. Nash III, ‘Lichen sensitivity to air pollution’, in Nash (ed.), Lichen Biology, pp. 299–314.
[45] William Johnson, ‘Lichens, and a Polluted Atmosphere’, in J. E. Taylor (ed.), Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip: An Illustrated Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature, 15:178 (London: David Bogue, 1879): p. 217. Johnson, who began his working life in a Yorkshire woollen mill and subsequently trained as a parson, was author of a number of pamphlets on lichens. For a lyrical overview of his enthusiasm for lichens, see his ‘Lichenology’, Wesley Naturalist, 1 (August 1887): pp. 174–6.
[46] Selina Gaye, The Great World’s Farm: Some Account of Nature’s Crops and How They are Grown [1893],  second edition (New York: Macmillan, 1894), p. 341.
[47] Ruskin, 28.301 (Fors Clavigera 52, April 1875); John Ruskin, Letter 278, in John Lewis Bradley and Ian Ousby (eds.), The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 364. See Suzanne Fagence Cooper and Richard Johns (eds.), Ruskin, Turner, and the Storm Cloud (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019). For more on Ruskin and sustainability see Vicky Albritton and Fredrik Albritton Johnson, Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
[48] Deborah R. Coen, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), p. 16.
[49] David Masson, ‘Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Literature’, British Quarterly Review 16:31 (August 1852): pp. 200, 205.
[50] John Everett Millais to Martha Combe, 22 November 1851, in John Guile Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, two volumes (London: Methuen, 1899), vol. 1, p. 135.
[51] Unsigned review of the Royal Academy summer exhibition, Athenaeum 25 (22 May 1852), p. 581.
[52] Susan P. Casteras, ‘John Everett Millais’s “Secret-Looking Garden Wall” and the Courtship Barrier in Victorian Art’, Browning Institute Studies 13 (1985): p. 75.
[53] Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, ‘Dendrography and Ecological Realism’, Victorian Studies 58:4 (2016): pp. 700, 711.
[54] John Holmes, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 56.

DOI: 10.33999/2021.57